Double-Blinded by Illuminating Pinots

Double-blind tastings are always so broadening. All prejudices, except for the ones that persist in your mind (or sensory memory), are thrown out the window. Let the chips fall where they will: if you taste something you like that you previously didn’t, or vice-versa, there you go…

Here’s a tasting of ten that I did with a group of hardened Denver oenophiles last week (09/19/2008). Granted, we all knew what wines we personally brought to the table, but not what each other brought (making this a 90% double-blind tasting). How the chips fell, in order of my preference:

1. 2005 Domaine Serene, Two Barns Dundee Hills Pinot Noir
Domaine Serene was always a producer I’ve always had mixed feelings about; and before the unveiling I “identified” this wine as Californian. Which goes to show how blurred the lines of distinction between contemporary Oregon and California Pinot Noirs have become – Oregon grown Pinots showing the deeper colored, riper, fuller bodied characteristics associated with California Pinots, and California grown Pinots showing more of the restraint and finesse long associated with Oregon Pinots. The Two Barns’ deep, purplish ruby cast at the center had me immediately thinking “big extract Californian.” But no matter, because this was also an extremely fine, yet meaty textured wine; the nose tight but sweet and concentrated in wild berry aromas; and on the palate, full and notably fleshy, with generous but round, pliant tannins tucked well between the meaty layers.

2. 1998 Domaine Robert Arnaux, Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Poisets
All the Burgundies in this tasting were significantly older than the West Coast Pinot Noirs; but take it for what it is: we empirically know that Burgundies evolve slower than West Coast Pinot Noirs anyhow, and so this probably evens things out in terms of fairness issues. A rich ruby center rimmed by bright brick tones follows up with partially evolved charred, smoky earthy qualities, enveloping sweet, berryish Pinot Noir aromas tinged with yeasty notes. On the palate, the wine is dense and juicy, still tight with round, compacted tannin on top of lush fruit flavors. But no question about it: very distinctly Burgundian; bearing earthen characteristics that couldn’t possibly be construed as New World.

3. 2005 Cristom, Louise Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir
Maybe it was the aggressive qualities of most of the wines in this tasting that made me partial to this cuvée by Cristom; a producer whose Pinot Noirs I have found to be tough and oft-times disjointed in past vintages. Whatever the case, there is nothing but the opposite – understated intensity, and a tender, velvety, long and languorous feel – about this Cristom (think Audrey Hepburn with smoke and elongated platinum cigarette holder). The nose is sweet and floral, with crushed berries and cassis; on the palate, medium to medium-full in weight, the fruit becoming plummy, and the tannins fine and textured.

4. 2006 Tandem, Auction Block Sonoma Pinot Noir
This was not a group favorite, and I can’t say I blame anyone. Tandem does not produce demure Pinot Noirs; and this cuvée – dominated by grape sources from the cold climate extremes of Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and Russian River – is wildly uncouth, dancing around with ringing perfumes and a cacophony of spices: a jarring contrast with every other wine in this tasting. Even the color – deep purplish center transitioning to a bright crimsom rim – gives fair warning of the heady, flowery, exotic fragrances (ginger, cardamom, rose petals, ripe berries and toasty oak), and the juxtaposition of lacy silk and zesty, mouthwatering acidity, lengthening the intensity of pungently spiced fruit in the finish. Call it a brother from another planet – love it (like me), or leave it!

5. 1985 Louis Jadot, Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Boudots 1er Cru
This was the overall group favorite, and why not? It was almost miraculous in enduring freshness, and its soft, round, delicate, melting qualities epitomize the unmistakably discreet charms of gracefully matured Burgundy. I gave it high marks for finesse, but fewer marks for complexity. Color is brickish brown with an orangy rim; the nose, of sweet rose petals and charred leaves, with subtle, engaging animal notes flowing between the soft, lingering flavors.

6. 2005 Domaine Serene, Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Here’s the rub: there were actually two bottles of this same wine inserted into the tasting; and purely by coincidence, they ended up being served one after the other, confounding some of the tasters (who wouldn’t be? – it was like kissing twins, and not knowing which one). As it were, the two bottles weren’t exactly alike – one bottle tasting bigger, but finishing with a slight smack of alcohol. But both were rich in deep, youthful, violet toned red color as well as sappy, black cherry/red berry aromas. On the palate, an aggressive style of Pinot Noir (again, more “California”): broad, sinewy, and slightly tough with tannin. This is the style of Domaine Serene I’ve always felt sends mixed signals: there is varietal perfume aplenty, but a rather unvarietal pugnacity in the delivery (like a good man in drag). But if this is what you like, it can be your greatest Pinot in the world.

7. 2003 Peter Michael, Pisoni Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir
This unrepentantly aggressive (and yes, very much Californian) Pinot Noir received a number of “first place” votes; and in fact, there is plenty to sink your teeth into: particularly, lush, textured, mouth-filling fruit qualities belying its full-tilt sensations. I like the intensity, as well as its roasted meat, feral nuances; but couldn’t quite get behind its sweet-ish notes of volatile acidity (in this wine, giving warm, balsamic-like notes) which, granted, lifts the Pinot perfume, but slightly above the threshold of my personal (mind you) preference.

8. 1994 Domaine Pierre Damoy, Clos de Bèze Grand Cru
It has always been wrong to compare traditionally elevated, terroir focused Burgundian growths with plainly fruit driven American Pinot Noirs. That said, the round, velvety textured quality of this wine takes the back seat to few Pinot Noir based wines; but both tight tannin underpinnings and pungent, earthy, brie-like aromatics put it on the opposite end of the varietal scale from soft, fruity styles. I thoroughly enjoyed this wine, and felt that it was such a shame that I was sipping it alongside other wines rather than with, say, a good, roasted cut of veal in a silky wild mushroom demi-glace.

9. 2003 Nicolas Potel, Clos de la Roche Grand Cru
Medium ruby color, followed by moderately rich, spicy sausage and low key berry notes, tinged with a slight gaminess tagging its Old World lineage; and like a lot of Old World growths, the feel is lean, narrow, and slightly tart edged; all good qualities, but in stark contrast with the lusher, rounded textures of most of the rest of the wines in this tasting.

10. 1995 Comte Armand, Pommard Clos des Epeneaux 1er Cru
Brick ruby and low key Pinot perfumes tinged by interestingly resiny, almost piney nuances as well as, alas, slightly dirty notes veering towards TCA (but not quite there). On the palate, a firm, lean-beefy texture giving mildly tart, sweet Pinot fruit sensations of moderate intensity.


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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.